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Veterinarians and others plan mission to rescue animals from zoos in Gaza

A MARTÍNEZ, BYLINE: Israel's war with Hamas has created a humanitarian catastrophe for the millions of Palestinians stuck in Gaza. Most of the population is displaced, and Gaza's already impoverished infrastructure has collapsed. The United Nations says 90% of the population regularly goes a whole day without food. And while the humans are living in dire conditions, so are the animals in Gaza. Veterinarian Dr. Amir Khalil argues any life that can be saved from war should be saved.

AMIR KHALIL: I think it is the wrong timing to see whom to save and whom not to save. And I think if I'm able to help one creature, it's enough.

MARTÍNEZ: Dr. Khalil is part of a team at Four Paws, an organization that rescues animals from war zones. I spoke with him as he was planning a mission to get surviving animals out of the zoos in Gaza.

KHALIL: To go to a war zone or conflict zone, the team and myself - we are prepared for the unexpected. The most important thing is the safety and the security for the team. So we cannot enter without coordination with all involved stakeholder in Israel and in Gaza. So it's like a military operation, in fact, to do such a mission.

MARTÍNEZ: What kinds of animals are you expecting to try to rescue from Gaza?

KHALIL: There is several zoos in Gaza. Currently, we hear about three zoos are in need. There is a private zoo in central Gaza. And in Rafah Zoo, there is animal. So we speak about lions. We speak about hyena. We hear about crocodiles there and three baboon who escaped from a zoo in Gaza.

MARTÍNEZ: How do you move them, considering that many of the roads are destroyed and it's still an active war zone? So take us through that process of actually moving the animals once you have them.

KHALIL: In fact, it needs a lot of intelligence work before, especially on the road. If you enter under humanitarian aid, a lot of people will think you have food for humans. They might attack even your car. You need to be aware about the road are safe from snipers. You have to be aware about enough food with you for the animal because you don't know how long it will take. Even a short distance - it might take hours sometime for a checkpoint or control. You need to be prepared for the worst scenario all the time.

MARTÍNEZ: And where do you expect to go with the animals right off the bat?

KHALIL: Our intention to take the animal to Egypt. And from Egypt, we go further to - our destination will be our sanctuary with the Princess Alia Foundation - will be in Jordan.

MARTÍNEZ: Could you imagine a situation where they would go back to Gaza somehow, or are they now out of Gaza permanently?

KHALIL: If you imagine, the majority of the animals were smuggled by tunnels 6 kilometers under the ground. The people in Gaza deserve to have - sure, wild animals deserve to have a proper place - where they can see the animal, but not really a prison, because the majority of the animal were kept in poor condition due to the political situation there and the economic situation. But if Gaza, sure, in the future get a proper condition, and they have a proper place to keep animal, I think, 100%, everyone will assist. The people there deserve to see wildlife, but also under international standard.

MARTÍNEZ: Doctor, I apologize in advance for how this question is going to sound. But considering you risking your life, does it make sense to do that for animals in this situation?

KHALIL: It's more about kindness. It make no sense to fight only for human and we let animal die from hunger. This is not humanity. So I think to rescue the life for such a mission, it is a candle in the dark to stop the war. I witnessed this several times in Gaza and in Israel. They were putting the weapons down on the ground to let the animal pass. So it might be a hope. I think humanity is much bigger word.

MARTÍNEZ: That's Dr. Amir Khalil of Four Paws. Thank you very much, doctor.

KHALIL: Thank you so much for the opportunity.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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